More Than 20 Coal-Fired Plants Will Close in Wake of Wastewater Rule

A new wastewater rule authorized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) earlier this year is leading several coal-fired plants to announce closure plans, according to an analysis of state regulatory filings by the Sierra Club.

The group said at least 26 plants in 14 states have said they will stop burning coal, with 21 facilities closing and another five switching to natural gas-fired generation, according to a report published Nov. 22 by the Associated Press. The EPA has said it expects the rule would impact about 75 coal-fired plants across the country.  

The EPA in July announced it would reinstate Obama-era regulations on wastewater that were rolled back by the Trump administration. The new wastewater rule requires power plants to clean coal ash and toxic heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, and selenium from plant wastewater before it is discharged into streams and rivers.

Coal-fired power plants had an October deadline to tell their state regulators how they planned to comply with the rule. The options included upgrading pollution-control equipment, or retiring their coal-fired generating units by 2028.

“Coal companies are finally being held accountable for the toxic mercury, arsenic, and selenium pollution they’ve been dumping into streams and rivers across the country each year,” Sierra Club attorney Zack Fabish told POWER. “Rather than paying the full price to operate and control the pollution at these coal plants, for years the coal companies have been shifting the costs onto local communities, forcing them to deal with heavily-polluted water that endangered their health and safety.” 

The EPA has estimated the rule would reduce pollutants in the nation’s waterways by about 386 million pounds each year. The agency said operators of coal-fired power plants could spend about $200 annually to comply with the rule.

30% of U.S. Coal Fleet Retired

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has reported that about 30% of U.S. coal-fired generation capacity has been retired since 2010.

The Sierra Club said that coal-fired units would be shuttered by 2028 in Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.

Utilities shutting units due to the new rule include Southern Co., which already had announced the closure of units at two of the nation’s largest coal-fired power plants—Plant Scherer and Plant Bowen—in Georgia. The utility recently said it would shutter more than half its coal fleet over the next few years.

Houston, Texas-based NRG said it would end coal use at plants outside of Texas, and it would install new pollution controls at its two coal-fired generation facilities in its home state.

The Pennsylvania closures include the Keystone and Conemaugh plants near Pittsburgh, two of the state’s largest coal-fired facilities, each with 1,872 MW of generation capacity. The AP said it obtained regulatory notices that said the plants would retire all their generating units by year-end 2028. Pennsylvania is the nation’s No. 3 state in terms of coal production, after Wyoming and West Virginia. But coal’s share of power generation in Pennsylvania was just 10% last year, as many power plants there now burn natural gas, which is produced in abundance in the Marcellus Shale that covers much of the state.

EIA data shows that at least 17 coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania have closed since 2009, with that state and neighboring Ohio accounting for one-fifth of all U.S. coal-fired power plant shutdowns in the past few years.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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